France’s heroic leader Charles de Gaulle might have lent his name to airports and famed metropolitan intersections as one of the previous century’s most pivotal political figures. But save for a TV film here and a documentary there, he surprisingly has never been granted a major biopic of his own before. In that regard, writer-director Gabriel Le Bomin’s epically scaled, mainstream wartime drama “De Gaulle” feels sorely overdue, which makes it all the more frustrating that it’s saddle with a lackluster script unworthy of its larger-than-life subject and cookie-cutter visual aesthetics.
Then again, perhaps no cinematic endeavor could really do justice to the significant legacy of de Gaulle, a leader who shepherded Free France Forces against the Nazi Germany as an army officer, helped rebuild democracy in his nation in the mid ’40s as the head of the Provisional Government of the French Republic and served both as the Prime Minister and President of France in the later decades through the late ’60s. But Le Bomin and his co-writer Valérie Ranson-Enguiale give a portion of this massive undertaking a shot anyway, focusing specifically on the earlier part of de Gaulle’s efforts as a public servant during World War II, a firebrand who passionately opposed an armistice with the Germans while his country under Prime Minister Paul Reynaud (Olivier Gourmet) was ready to accept defeat and surrender to the Nazis.
The film’s screenplay follows de Gaulle, brought to life in a respectably convincing yet imitation-heavy performance by Lambert Wilson, as he makes his way through a number of decisive weeks between April and June of 1940. It was during this time that de Gaulle left for England and rapidly rose to controversial wartime eminence while he tried to garner the support of Winston Churchill (Tim Hudson) in affiliating France with the Allied forces and disregarded the demands of his military post, a deed for which the Vichy France regime of the time (led by Marshall Philippe Pétain later, played here by Philippe Laudenbach), had sentenced him with prison time. “De Gaulle” snaps these events and all the smoke-drenched, shouty backroom negotiations and machinations together in scattered fragments, seeing the General through his seminal BBC radio speech. Sadly, what’s ought to be a rousing scene that re-creates the momentous, resistance-instigating Appeal of June 18 plays more like a lifeless reenactment of that public plea, devoid of the emotional pull of the famous finale in “The King’s Speech” that effectively tugs at the viewers’ heartstrings and sense of national pride.
Unfortunately, that same self-conscious dullness infiltrates most of the movie, which somehow manages to reduce a chain of spectacularly stirring historical events down to two hours as boring as a monotonous academic lecture. “De Gaulle” finds an occasional spring in its step only when it attempts to humanize its legendary subject as an everyman beneath his famous kepi, particularly through the details of his family life that includes his wife Yvonne (Isabelle Carré) and three kids, the youngest of which was born with Down syndrome. If you can overlook how underwritten Yvonne is as a character, there are a number of touching moments buried within these segments that portray de Gaulle as a loving husband and a relatable, committed countryside family man navigating the clash between his domestic and civic responsibilities.
But between poorly calculated flashbacks, nonsensical dream sequences and an overtly celebratory attitude that routinely downplays notions like dramatic anticipation, intrigue and the characters’ intricate psyches, “De Gaulle” frequently stammers through a myriad of cliches and a severe lack of suspense. Even the moments surrounding de Gaulle’s family’s perilous escape from the Germans — scenes that should prompt some excitement in the audience — feel uninteresting and listless in tone and execution.
Elsewhere, Nicolas de Boiscuillé’s production design — brightly aspirational around de Gaulle’s country home, but dark and mahogany-forward otherwise — works overtime to sell “De Gaulle” as a serious prestige period picture. His heavy-handed ambition is matched by Romain Trouillet’s unsubtly bombastic score and is captured by Jean-Marie Dreujou’s adaptive yet uninspired cinematography. Considering the colossal historical footprint of the real-world story it tells, “De Gaulle” should have been an occasion equal parts immersive and high-stakes, but Le Bomin’s tedious drag fails to rise to it.